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Relative pronouns

Relative pronouns are best defined in syntactic terms: they are pronouns that introduce a relative clause, as in

de man die achter me staat
DEF.SG.C man(C)SG REL.SG.C behind PRO.1SG.OBL stand.3SG.PRS
the man who's standing behind me

There are several pronominal forms that perform this function. The two most common forms are die and dat. The distribution of these pronouns depends on the gender and number of their antecedent, the noun in the main clause modified by the relative clause. Die is used for common gender singular nouns and for all plural nouns, dat appears with neuter singular nouns. Consequently, replacing common gender man in example (1) by neuter gender huis requires exchanging the common gender relative pronoun for a neuter gender one (example (2)):

het huis dat achter me staat
DEF.SG.N house(N)SG REL.SG.N behind PRO.1SG.OBL stand.3SG.PRS
the house that stands behind me

The more formal alternative for die, archaic in most contexts, is welke, with the neuter gender counterpart welk.

In informal discourse, the question word wat what often replaces dat(Schoonenboom 2002).

het huis wat achter me staat
DEF.SG.N house(N)SG what behind PRO.1SG.OBL stand.3SG.PRS
the house that stands behind me

If the relative pronoun refers to a person and if it is not the subject of the relative clause, the form wie whom/whose is used, especially in more formal contexts (example (4)).

de man met wie zij samenwoont
DEF.C.SG man(C)SG with REL.C.SG PRO.3SG.F live_together.3SG.PRS
the man whom she's living with

In informal contexts, a construction with waar where is increasingly preferred.

de man waar ze mee samenwoont
DEF.SG.C man(C)SG where PRO.3SG.F with live_together.3SG.PRS
the man she's living with

The commonest relative pronouns are the following:

Table 1
Singular Plural
Common gender die, welke die, welke
Neuter gender dat, wat, welk die, welke
The pronouns die and dat are used most widely in speech and writing. Welk and welke belong to the formal register and are hardly used in speech.

There are five additional forms: wie, wiens, wier, hetgeen and hetwelk. The latter two are highly formal and are rarely used.


Relative pronouns agree in gender and number with their antecedent, the noun to which the relative clause is attached. Common gender antecedents require the pronouns die or welke, while neuter gender nouns take dat or welk. Instead of the neuter pronoun dat we often find the question word wat what; this form is often preferred in spoken language. In addition, wat has its own function: it appears in contexts where the antecedent is a whole sentence rather than an individual noun or noun phrase. An example is provided in (5). In utterances such as these, the neuter pronoun dat cannot be used.

Hij werd boos, wat ik begrijpelijk vond.
PRO.3SG.M become.3SG.PST angry REL.N.SG PRO.1SG understandable find.1SG.PST
He got angry, which I understood

The pronoun wie whom/whose is used when the relative pronoun refers to a person and is not the subject of the relative clause. The examples in (7) illustrate different instances of this usage (examples from E-ANS).

a. De man wie we dat gevraagd hadden, is psycholoog.
The man whom we asked is a psychologist.
b. Pamela D., met wie hij samenleefde, werd veroordeeld wegens medeplichtigheid.
Pamela D., whom he lived with, was convicted for complicity.
c. De man in de stoel van wie ik nu zit, heet Johnny.
The man in whose chair I'm sitting now is called Johnny.
d. De baron wie z'n kasteel ik opgeknapt heb, is overleden.
The baron whose castle I renovated has passed away.

Examples (7a)-(7c) are typical of written language, while (7d) is more informal.

A prepositional phrase as in (7b) is often replaced by a complex preposition with the element waar where. Thus, met wie in (7b) can appear as waarmee waar-mee where-with who with. These complex forms are the only way in which the neuter gender relatives dat and wat can combine with prepositions: combinations such as *van dat/wat of what are realised as waarvan whereof of which. The prepositions met with and tot to, up to, until have special forms for these combinations; these are mee and toe, resulting in examples such as in (8)

a. Het mes waarmee hij gedood was werd nooit gevonden
DEF.SG.N knife(N) where_with PRO.3SG.M kill.PTCP be.3SG.PST become.3SG.PST never find.PTCP
The knife he was killed with was never found
b. De inspanningen waartoe hij bereid was bleven onopgemerkt
DEF.PL effort.PL where_to PRO.3SG.M ready be.3SG.PST remain.3PL.PST unnoticed
The efforts he was prepared to make remained unnoticed

If the relative pronoun expresses possession or attachment, there are two relative pronouns in the genitive case: wiens whose (masculine) and wier whose (feminine). The use of these pronouns is restricted to persons and is associated with formal speech or writing.

de man/vrouw wiens/wier huis wij gekocht hebben
DEF.SG.C man/woman whose.M/F house(N)SG PRO.1PL buy.PTCP AUX.1SG.PRS
the man/woman whose house we bought

In addition to the special relative pronouns, adverbials can occur in a comparable function. (10) gives three examples (adapted from E-ANS).

a. Het huis waar ik woon is erg oud.
The house where I live is very old.
b. De dag toen zij kwam, herinner ik me nog.
The day (when) she came, I still remember
c. Dat is precies de manier hoe ik het hebben wil.
This is exactly the way (how) I want it
  • Schoonenboom, Judith2002Analyse, norm en gebruik als factoren van taalverandering: een studie naar veranderingen in het Nederlands onzijdig relativumAmsterdamUniversity of AmsterdamThesis
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